So Much Better on a Re-Read: Laini Taylor – Daughter of Smoke and Bone

I don’t usually write reviews when I re-read a book but this time, I simply had to. Because this is probably the only case where a book I disliked a lot turned into a book I really loved! It goes to show that what you read before you pick up a book and your current mood makes a huge difference. I think the first time I read this, I had read too many bad YA books and went into it prejudiced or at least very carefully. When my expectations weren’t met, I was annoyed. And the love story kind of threw me.
This time around, I knew what to expect, I was in the right mood, and I ended up loving it. Sure, I still have some reservations (holy crap, the dialogue is cheesy on occasion) but I was much more forgiving on those parts because everything else was just so beautiful.

DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE
by Laini Taylor

Published: Little, Brown, 2011
Ebook: 420 pages
Series: Daughter of Smoke and Bone #1
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: Walking to school over the snow-muffled cobbles, Karou had no sinister premonitions about the day.

Around the world, black hand prints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky.
In a dark and dusty shop, a devil’s supply of human teeth grows dangerously low.
And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherworldly war.
Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real, she’s prone to disappearing on mysterious “errands”, she speaks many languages – not all of them human – and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she’s about to find out.
When beautiful, haunted Akiva fixes fiery eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself?

Karou is a young, blue-haired art student who lives in Prague. She also secretly works for a group of chimeara – human-animal hybrids or monsters or whatever you want to call them – running errands for them. Errands that mostly have her collecting teeth from different places all over the world. Through doors that turn into magical portals, she can get to far-off places quite easily and bring back teeth to her foster father Brimstone. Karou was raised by Brimstone and his monster friends but she doesn’t actually know who she is, who her biological parents are, or where she comes from. So even though she has otherworldly beauty and a best friend, she always feels sort of lost in the world. Like there’s a part of her missing.

Oh man, there is so much to love in this story. Having read Strange the Dreamer and some shorter works by Laini Taylor, I have to say that this feels very much like an early work. The beginnings of her genius are there but her lyrical language often veers into kitsch, something that doesn’t happen at all in her later books. What bothered me immensely the first time I read this was the description of people’s looks. Both Karou and Akiva are so beautiful that Laini Taylor unpacked a whole list of cliché descriptions that simply made me roll my eyes. Those parts were just as painful on the re-read as they were the first time. But at least I was prepared and tried to ignore it and concentrate on the other parts of the story.

And the story packs a punch. When black handprints appear on the portals Karou uses, she knows something isn’t right. When she is cut off from the only family she has evern known and has to fear for their lives, it’s time to act on her own. Even if that means talking to the weird (but of course, crazy beautiful) angel who almost killed her and who seems responsible for her dire situation. When Karou and Akiva do talk, the secrets that are revealed are way bigger than Karou could have expected. And that’s all I can say about that without spoiling. But there are twists within twists and they work because – despite the cheesy language – Laini Taylor makes us care for these characters first.

Karou wasn’t the easiest character to like. She feels a bit aloof what with all her secret-keeping and the magical abilities granted to her by Brimstone, in the form of wishes. Being a teenager, she only gets small wishes – just enough to make her hair blue without having to dye it, or to give a nasty ex-boyfriend an uncomfortable itch. But Karou is after the bigger wishes, the ones that can make you fly or turn invisible. And honestly, how can I fault her? I would totally get myself teleportation powers and invisibility… But it took me a while to actually like her. Maybe it’s because she is described as being so beautiful and well-liked that I couldn’t really identify with her. But the more the story progresses and the more it becomes evident that Karou has real problems to deal with, the more I liked her. Even the ridiculous insta-love is forgivable once you’ve read the entire book.

Another strange storytelling choice was the cut from Karou’s storyline to a story from the magical world of the chimaera. It is such a crass cut that totally jarred me out of the reading experience when I first read this book.  Once you have read the entire book, it does make sense, but when you go into it for the first time, it just feels weird to completely leave Karou behind and go to a different character’s story for many chapters without ever checking back with Karou. Maybe alternating chapters would have been a better idea, maybe this is the right way to tell the story, I don’t know. But I also knew to expect this and so the wanting-to-finally-get-back-to-Karou wasn’t all that bad this time. And, unlike last time, I really enjoyed this flashback because I could just enjoy it for what it was. Madrigal’s story shows us this amazing other world, the one that Karou doesn’t really know. The one where Brimstone and Issa came from.

I can’t really put my finger on why this book worked so damn well for me this time when I kind of hated it the first time around. Sure, knowing ahead of time what things I won’t like helped. But I believe it mostly had to do with my own mindset and some prejudices about YA romantic fantasties that I have since left behind me (mostly). Whatever it really was, I am so very glad I gave this series another chance because I will definitely continue reading the trilogy and anthing else Laini Taylor publishes. The good thing is, I already know her writing gets better with every book (having adored Strange the Dreamer and Lips Touch: Three Times), so I fully expect to like the second and third novels in this trilogy even more.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

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